Israel strikes Gaza, sparking rocket fire and ending relative calm


TEL AVIV — Israeli airstrikes hit multiple targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, prompting Palestinian militants to retaliate with dozens of rockets, in the deadliest escalation of violence in the territory since an 11-day war. last year.

Israeli airstrikes hit residential apartments as well as watchtowers and militant outposts, killing a militant leader and at least nine others, including a 5-year-old girl, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

United Nations officials tried to broker a truce, but militants continued to retaliate with rockets late Friday, raising the likelihood of a more protracted conflict that diplomats and analysts feared would last into next week.

Israel said its strikes were a preemptive effort to prevent an imminent attack on Israeli civilians from Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza. An initial airstrike killed Taysir al-Jabari, a senior military official in the group, according to Islamic Jihad and the Israeli army. Israel launched new strikes later Friday, after the Palestinians returned fire.

The range and number of rockets fired from Gaza deep into Israeli territory posed a greater threat than any barrage launched from the enclave since the May 2021 war. Gaza militants fire rockets into Israel several times a year, but usually over short distances and in rural areas.

“The enemy has started a war targeting our people, and we must all defend ourselves and our people,” an Islamic Jihad statement said.

Israeli broadcasters showed the rockets flying over Israeli territory before being intercepted by missiles from an Israeli air defense system known as Iron Dome. Intercepts were reported in the skies as far north as Yavne, a city in central Israel just south of Tel Aviv, while air raid sirens sounded throughout the night in large parts of the south, indicating heavy rocket fire overhead.

Several towns in southern Israel opened their public bomb shelters as a precaution, and two Israelis were reportedly injured while seeking shelter.

The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza for several years. Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, had previously signaled they wanted to avoid another full-scale war for the enclave, which has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.

Since May 2021, there have been relatively few cross-border exchanges of fire, as tensions have shifted towards the occupied West Bank and Israel itself.

But over the past week, the possibility of a new conflict in Gaza has re-emerged – this time not with Hamas, but with Islamic Jihad. Israel arrested one of the top Islamic Jihad commanders in the West Bank this week, prompting threats of retaliation from its leaders in Gaza.

Israel closed crossings into the Gaza Strip this week in anticipation of a retaliatory attack following the arrest, and closed Israeli roads near the Gaza outskirts.

Islamic Jihad had yet to respond to the arrest with an attack on Friday, but Israel said it was close to doing so, and had therefore preemptively targeted al-Jabari and others.

“Israel will not allow terrorist organizations to set the agenda in the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel,” Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid said shortly after the airstrikes initials.

The length and intensity of the escalation could be determined in part by whether Hamas joins Islamic Jihad in retaliating.

In the past, Hamas has sometimes sat on the sidelines when Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel, and the group did not immediately rule out repeating that approach on Friday.

“As we mourn leader al-Jabari and the righteous martyrs, we affirm that things are open to all directions, calling for an end to the Zionist aggression against our people,” said Ismail Haniyeh, head of the political bureau Hamas, in a statement. .

UN officials tried late Friday to persuade all sides to pull out.

In the aftermath of the initial strikes, plumes of smoke rose on the Gaza skyline. On the ground, crowds of rescuers, medics and onlookers gathered in the street near where the Islamic Jihad commander had been killed. Photographs posted online showed him being carried through a crowd and a grieving man carrying what appeared to be a dead child covered in a shroud.

The airstrikes shifted the focus of the conflict to Gaza after a period of heightened violence in Israel and the West Bank.

Since March, Palestinian assailants have killed at least 19 Israelis and foreigners in the West Bank and Israel, in the most intense wave of stabbings and shootings in several years. In response, Israel staged near-night raids in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and killing more than 40, according to the United Nations.

Several civilians have been caught up in the violence in the West Bank, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American newscaster who was shot while covering an Israeli raid in May.

Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas took control of the coastal strip in 2007. This blockade imposes severe limitations on who is allowed to enter the enclave and who is allowed to leave.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to stop the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants there, but Palestinians and aid groups say it is a punitive measure that exacerbates dire economic and social conditions in the Strip . Palestinian officials said dozens of people who needed to travel to the West Bank for medical treatment were among those barred from leaving Gaza following the closures this week.

Hamas has repeatedly signaled in recent months that it does not want another major military escalation in Gaza, in part to avoid worsening the humanitarian situation so soon after the devastation of the year’s war. last.

Gaza authorities continue to repair buildings damaged or destroyed during the fighting last May; Hamas and Islamic Jihad are still restocking their rocket depots; and Gazans are reluctant to lose some concessions made by Israel after last year’s war – including an increase in the number of Israeli work permits awarded to Gaza residents, a major lifeline for Gaza’s economy.

Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Ménerbes, France. Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Fady Hanona from Gaza City and Iyad Abu Hweila from Antalya, Turkey.

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